I suspect I heard the story of the U.S.S Indianapolis for the first time much the same way most of my generation did–by watching the movie Jaws. Robert Shaw’s Quint, after some drinking and swapping of scar stories, reveals he survived the vessel’s sinking. In his quiet slur of a voice, he tells Hooper and Brody about the sharks, their dead eyes which roll over white when they sink their teeth into flesh. It’s a great scene and a haunting story.
Doug Stanton’s In Harm’s Way is no less chilling. Here, he lays out the full story of the that fateful journey, from the ship’s rushed departure from San Francisco with the component parts of the first atomic bomb all the way through to the survivor’s years long fight to exonerate their captain’s tarnished record. Though Stanton doesn’t skimp on background and scope, the vivd accounts of the seamen’s experiences make it a gripping tale. Stanton achieves this by zooming in on three survivors: Captain McVay, Marine Giles McCoy, and the ship’s doctor Richard Heinz, and following them through their ordeal. In taught and compelling prose, Stanton details the suffering of the 880-some men who survived the initial sinking, their four days afloat in shark infested water without food or water, and their heroic, if long overdue, rescue.
Stanton also follows the survivors and their crusade to vindicate their captain who was court-martialed (and later committed suicide).
Of the almost 1200 men aboard the ship, 900 went into the water on that July night. Rescue ships managed to save only 317.
Quint told a hell of a story. Stanton tells a better one.